Flash Fiction Horror Writing Interview with Pamelyn Casto
Below is part 1 and part 2 of an interview with me on writing flash fiction horror pieces
The interview was published in Jobs In Hell #158 on November 12, 2002. The interview was conducted by Michael T. Huyck, Jr. (The second part of the interview was published a week later.)
A couple of things in the interview have been updated to reflect what I'm currently doing. In order to keep the interview as it was originally published I've noted any updates in parentheses.
SHORT AND (MAYBE) SWEET I
Interview By Michael T. Huyck, Jr.
I "met" Pamelyn Casto years ago on an Internet writing workshop and we've been buddies ever since. It's her smile that I like (we did get to hang out together maybe five years ago - ask her about the highway and the tennyrunners.) And her wicked wit. Oh, and her writing. Back then, as we were developing, she chose to wander a path that includes the smallest and tightest bits of fiction. Call 'em short-shorts. Call 'em flash. Call 'em micro. Just don't call 'em nasty names in front of her.
Pam's articles have been featured in Writer's Digest, The Art of Haiku 2000, Web Del Sol's Perihelion, Riding the Meridian, Fiction Fix, E2K: The New Literary Paradigm, the Toastmaster magazine (and other print and online publications). Her shorter work has appeared in, among others, Suddenly: Prose Poetry and Sudden Fiction (Vol.3), Potpourri, Modern Haiku, Mindprints, Flashquake, and Ship of Fools. As if the writing isn't enough to keep her busy, she's also the editor of Flash Fiction Flash: The Newsletter for Flash Literature Writers (http://groups.yahoo.com/group/FlashFictionFlash), she created and runs online flash fiction and poetry workshops, and (finally) teaches online courses in writing flash fiction through Coffeehouse For Writers. I'm surprised she has the time for us. (Update: I now teach four-week online courses in flash fiction and haibun through flashquake http://www.flashquake.org/online-classes/index.html )
Jobs In Hell: Let's start with some clarification, Pam. What's the difference between flash fiction and short fiction? How might I tell them apart?
Pamelyn Casto: Tough questions, and pretty well impossible to answer! The clearest difference is length but that won't get us very far. Some flash fiction runs 50 words (or even fewer sometimes). Some flash fiction runs up to 1,000 words (or more). Then there's sudden fiction, which can run 2,000 words or so.
JIH: Sudden fiction. I hadn't heard of that one.
PC: "Sudden fiction" usually represents the upper length limit for short-short stories. As you see, even the form's name can't quite be pinned down. Some call it flash fiction, micro fiction, postcard fiction, fast or zip or quick fiction, minimalist fiction, sudden fiction, smoke-long stories, and several other names. Some names are interchangeable and some aren't. So my preference is just "short-short fiction." Which merely means it's shorter than short fiction.
Much depends on what an editor or publisher wants to call such work and what length requirements he or she wants to set for publishing these stories. Or even how the particular editor/ publisher views flash fiction itself. Some insist that it be exactly like short fiction in having a traditional structure of beginning/middle/end with a conflict and/or an epiphany. Some prefer more experimental flash fiction-- fiction that doesn't necessarily stick to commonly accepted fiction-writing "rules" (e.g., stories with no apparent conflict, stories one or two long sentences that cover two or three pages, and mood or language or tone pieces). So there are a wide variety of ways writers create flash fiction. As Charles Baxter says about short-short stories, "as a form, they are open, and exist in a state of potential." Writers writing in the form today also have a hand in determining what it is and what it can do and how it might be defined.
JIH: In the sense that the author has more room for definition, short-short fiction sounds like a close cousin to poetry. Is that a fair comparison?
PC: A very fair comparison. In many ways they're like kissin' cousins. Some prose poetry such as Carolyn Forche's "The Colonel" and some of Russell Edson's work is anthologized in both flash fiction anthologies and prose poetry anthologies.
In fact, one recent anthology made the wise choice of calling the work within "fiction" rather than prose poetry. The publishers realized that many people dislike anything called "poetry" so they overcame that obstacle by calling the short works "fiction." That's not to say poetry and flash fiction are the same. There are differences. But short-short stories are often boundary crossers, threshold pieces, and some writers do make heavy use of various poetry devices to tell their stories.
By definition, short-shorts must be... short. Therefore these stories often make use of concision and condensation. As William Faulkner said of poetry,"You have less room to be slovenly and careless. There's less room in it for trash." In short-short fiction, where the goal is to put up and shut up, every word or image becomes important. Such brief pieces have to be as concise and rich as some poetry.
Another comparison between flash fiction and poetry is in the area of dramatic monologues. Poet Robert Browning is known for such poetry and such pieces work in part because they don't go on and on. Flash fiction is an ideal length for dramatic monologues, which can become quite tedious in longer works where the writer is locked into one voice only. So that's an astute observation you made that poetry and flash fiction can be closely related.
For instance, as with some poetry there's no room in a short-short for much character or plot development. So many writers will use various forms of literary shorthand to achieve their effects. John Updike used literary shorthand when he titled one of his short-shorts "Pygmalion". In so doing he could draw on what readers already know about that literary character. Charles Baxter did likewise with his short- short "Scheherazade." Many readers are already familiar with these literary characters so the writers didn't have to say much about them. This is a form of condensation, compressing a character's character to a name. Then the writer can focus on the story that results from the use of the richly-charged character name.
JIH: No room for plot? No room for character? Argghhh. Tell, me, Pam,why would I write this? What do I gain as a writer? How do I grow?
PC: Let's say there's *little room* for plot and character development. Flash fiction stories can be conceived as little rooms--as Keats said of poetry, in good short-shorts we can find "infinite riches in small rooms." Once more, concision and condensation or compression come into play in flash fiction.
PC: Think of flash fiction as Edgar Allen Poe' s "aesthetic theory of effect" pushed to the limit. Poe wrote that a short story writer should subordinate everything in a story (plot, characters, style, etc.) in order to bring out a single, preconceived effect. I'll quote him. "In the whole composition there should be no word written, of which the tendency, direct or indirect, is not to the one pre-established design. And by such means, with such care and skill, a picture is at length painted which leaves in the mind of him who contemplates it with a kindred art, a sense of the fullest satisfaction."
So I'd say that writing flash fiction using a single effect can improve the skills of even writers of longer fiction. Think of a potent scene in anovel, a charged chapter that is done so well that it has a profound effect on readers. We might think of some flash fiction as effecting a moment of revelation, a sudden epiphany-- an "aha!" moment where some truth about the human condition suddenly flashes before readers' eyes. But such flash fiction pieces can also stand alone, be unattached to a larger story, and be as satisfying as a complete story in their sudden revelation. They can also be like "real life" in many ways, too, in that "truth" often arrives in surprising moments and isn't usually a prolonged affair. It's suddenly there, in what seems like a flash of illumination or understanding. Flash fiction can capture and convey these moments, these small and surprising and often disturbing truths in a satisfying way.
JIH: Let's go with the Poe description and apply it, then. Can you point our readers towards the path they need to take to get to that "single, preconceived effect"? What writing foundations are available, no, better yet, applicable, to achieving the desired effect in, say, 500 words?
PC: The writer must decide the desired effect in advance and then carefully work to achieve it. Let's try an example. Russell Edson's "Dinner Time" is a super-shorty depicting an old married couple consumed with rage. No names are used and the setting is a generic kitchen. The old man waits for his dinner to be served and the sound of pain and rage coming from the cooking pots his wife is beating is the kind that makes him want to inflict more of the same on his environment. So the rage-filled old man punches his face. The rage-filled woman curses the pots for burning her, drops the dinner, and the dinner utensils scream out in pain. The old man beats himself and various other objects in his own fits of rage. Every action depicted is an act of rage. Pots are beaten, the old man smashes his head into a wall, punches his face and his legs to teach them a lesson. A mirror is punched and shattered, a chair is broken, the stove gets axed, and threats are made:"I'll cut your ears off." "Come near me and I'll kick an eye out of your head." The story ends with the old man first swallowing his fist, then a spoon, and then finally he swallows himself. He's literally eaten up with rage. His wife's response: 'Okay...Now you've done it.' A single effect is the result-- a story of all-consuming rage. Everything in the darkly comical and disturbing story contributes to the single effect and the metaphor is made literal.
Or let's go even shorter--around 250 words. Molly Giles' "The Poet'sHusband" is a model of controlled ambiguity. Again, there are no names used in the story and readers are presented with a married couple's relationship (condensed) as the husband attends his wife's poetry reading. But Giles uses a single significant detail at the end of the story, which turns what came before on its head. What she created isn't one of those gimmicky twist ending stories. In her story, one sentence long, about the length of a long paragraph, the couple's relationship history is effectively and briefly presented, and the final significant detail (a spot on a drinking glass)provides a surprising epiphany for readers, a sudden disturbing understanding of the nature of their relationship. Everything that came before leads to and contributes to the final revelation but it's written so well that a reader is kept off track until the final detail is revealed. Then readers realize the nature of the poet's husband. A flash of a disturbing truth is revealed. In Giles' little gem there's not a single word that doesn't contribute to what had to have been a pre-established design.
JIH: If I'm reading things correct, you're focused on verbs and adjectives instead of clearly defined nouns. Is that the fundamental difference? The difference that, without it, would remove the separation between the short-shorts and the shorts? Hell, I feel like I'm doing laundry here. C'mon, Pam, help me nail it down here. We're boiling down the short-short to its essence. Nothing but underwear and a smile. Answer me after I put this load in the dryer.
PC: Mikey, now I'm picturing you in front of the dryer in your B.V.Ds-- oh, dear, is this our segue into horror stories? (Couldn't resist that cheap shot, Mikey. We gotta take 'em as we find 'em, you know.) Let's see, you want secrets, fundamental supports, foundational undergarments. Or as we called them back in the hills, you want the skinny on the skivvies. Well, it could be that flash fiction sometimes ain't always necessarily wearin' any! It can be so elusive, so Cheshire cat-ish that it's impossible to get to its essence because its essence keeps changing according to whatever story we might consider. It's not a fixed form or genre at all. And that's part of the beauty of it. It can be, as Allen Woodman put it, "a sort of litmus test for finding out what elements one really needs in a story after all" but we want to avoid the various procrustean skivvies some will try to fit these stories into. To define something is to also limit it. To remove all the moisture, to try to dry it too dry, is also to shrink it. And there's little worse than stiff, dried-out, shrunken and ill-fitting underwear! Seriously, it's always risky to try to develop "rules," bare-butt skivvies for this type of writing. Because the "rules" change according to the story created. This type of writing exists in a state of potential and writers work to realize the potential in such a wide variety of ways.
JIH: I do believe that's the answer I was diggin' for, Madam. And thank you for the static cling. Now, since you brought it up (haven't you learned yet not to do that in interviews?) - let's talk horror. Earlier you mentioned Poe, whose poesy often crosses over into storytelling territory. And then there's the phenomenal Ambrose Bierce's exploration of the area. I could provide a paragraph of examples, because short-short fiction isn't a new to our subject genre. Given that, I have to wonder if the form doesn't lend itself well to all that's spooky and dark. Thoughts?
PC: You're right that short-shorts aren't new. They've always been around but now we have some new names to play with. And lots of experimentation going on. I also agree that the form lends itself well "to all that's spooky and dark." I think of Poe's disturbing poems, "The Raven" and "The Conqueror Worm." Or his chilling story, "The Cask of Amontillado." They're certainly memorable works and relatively short, too.
At your mention of Bierce, I just reread his terrifying story, "Chickamauga" and the horrific pantomime that takes place is terribly chilling. That final image of the deaf-mute child with no way to articulate the ineffable, the true horror of war, will never leave my mind. It gave me the shudders!
Flash fiction pieces can lend themselves well to almost any emotion or idea. And they can be especially effective in depicting the spooky, the eerie, the disturbing and terrifying. Because they subscribe to the "less is more" idea, the achieved effects can often be even more startling, disturbing, or frightening than in longer works. And that's because situations can be brought into brief and startling high relief-- a sudden flash of horror before the reader's eyes.
JH: NPR once ran a Hyper Fiction Contest and the story below was used as an example of the world's shortest horror story. Here it is in its entirety (but I have no idea who the author was):
The last man on Earth sat alone in a room. There was a knock at the door.
Now that's brief. But also spooky once the reader thinks about the implications. He's not alone... so what is doing the knocking? The story's quite clever but not exactly why I read short-shorts. I want more than that clever little story provides. But it does illustrate how short something can be and still achieve a spooky effect.
PC: As short-short writer Raymond Carver said: "It's possible...to write about commonplace things and objects using commonplace but precise language, and to endow these things-- a chair, a window curtain, a fork, a stone, a woman's earring -- with immense, even startling power. It is possible to write a line of seemingly innocuous dialogue and have it send a chill along the reader's spine."
I've read some especially spine-chilling short-shorts. There's OctavioPaz's "The Blue Bouquet" where at the whim of his girlfriend a man collects blue eyes from living people for a special blue bouquet. The brief story depicts the horror of random and even whimsical violence. There's RaymondCarver's "Popular Mechanics" that depicts a couple in the throes of a nasty fight and ends with the image of a child being pulled violently at each arm by the parents. Alice Walker's "The Flowers" is another. A young girl is alone in the woods gathering flowers. As she reaches for a particularly attractive flower for her bouquet, she then discovers a man's decomposed body-- she steps in his eyes. Then she sees the remnants of a noose. She's suddenly cast out of the Edenic existence she understands and there is evil in the world. Then there's Kafka's terrifying little fable (or anti-fable), which depicts the horror of a double-bind or paradox in fewer than ninety words.
Related to this, I think, is something Franz Kafka insisted. He never wanted his Gregor Samsa (the character who turns into a dung beetle in the highly disturbing "Metamorphosis") to be illustrated. With an artist's sense, Kafka knew that to get too "graphic" would destroy the power of the literary image/ metaphor.
Further, if we think about bad horror movies, they're often bad (sometimes even laughable) because they go on too long or get too ridiculously graphic-- as in blood pumping out of water faucets, or oozing up toilets, or cascading from ceiling beams. So employing the art of brevity, suggestion, image, and implication sometimes produces quite horrific effects without sustained length.
---- (END OF PART 1) (Below is Part II)
Part II: Flash Fiction Horror Writing Interview With Pamelyn Casto
"Short and (Maybe) Sweet II"
Interview conducted by Michael T. Huyck, Jr.
(Originally published in Jobs in Hell #159 - Tuesday, November 19, 2002)
JIH: So, if it's a good medium for horror, why aren't there more publications out there focusing on short-shorts? You'd think there'd be more short-short story action, what with them not taking as much out of a writer.
PC: There are plenty of markets out there. Some specialize in short-shorts and some markets accept longer fiction but leave room for short-shorts, too. There are ample print markets and plenty of online markets as well. It's all a matter of finding them. I'd guess I'm aware of at least 600 markets, ranging from small press literary publications to commercial publications. There are many short-short contests as well, some of which have nice prize money for winners. The Internet provides new opportunities all the time.
PC: Many people don't care to read long texts on screen but still seek good writing without the eye strain that screen reading can bring. Short-short scan fill that bill. But short-shorts are definitely not easy to write. The good pieces only *look* easy. Sure, a writer can probably rough draft such a story in one sitting, but this tight work demands plenty of thinking, editing, and re-visioning to achieve the desired effect or impact. They require intense concentration and attention to detail from writers.
PC: For instance, Alice K.Turner, fiction editor for Playboy, says there are only six short-short writers in the world, meaning (I think) that many are called but few are chosen. Some also say that the shorter the piece, the more likely it will fail. I think there's plenty of truth in those words. Those who really know how difficult they are to write are usually those who've tried to write them. They're definitely a challenge. The writers who amaze me, too, are those who create flash fiction type novels -- I can't imagine sustaining that kind of writing concentration for so long.
PC: The perception so many have that short-shorts are easy writing can turn out to be the very downfall of the genre. There was a time in the past when short-shorts were welcome submissions. But something happened that made them almost disappear from the publishing scene for some time. I suspect it was because too many people began writing them-- fast-- and the sheer volume of submissions probably turned a lot of editors or publishers off. Good short-shorts are works of art and creating works of art doesn't come easily or quickly.
PC: And speaking of fear and how daunting writing short pieces can be, even the great Anton Chekhov, who said of his stories "I can speak briefly on long subjects," grew nervous and doubtful when trying to write for a magazine that accepted stories of only one hundred lines. Now that's scary!
JIH: I'm gonna synopsize, then move into closure, Pam. We're going long here. When boiled down, you're saying that successful short-shorts are more about the impact left on the reader than the structure and development. Right?
PC: "Impact" is a fine concept for the goal of short-shorts. Good stories of any length should have some sort of impact on the reader. Shorties can provide a powerful and startling impact or provide a more subtle impact. To me the goal is to achieve impact with the intention of somehow disturbing a reader's equilibrium. Short-shorts can disturb equilibrium in a variety of ways, such as making a reader smile or laugh, making a reader see something in a new light, making a reader think new or different thoughts, or making a reader feel chills along the spine or feel the shudder of outright horror. After all, human life and emotion is multi-faceted and highly focused short-shorts can convey these facets in small and equilibrium- disturbing doses.
JIH: Tell us - where's Pamelyn Casto going from here? And where can our readers learn more about writing short-shorts again?
PC: As for me, I'll continue to study and write short-shorts. I have several in various stages of revision and need to work on those again. And I'll continue to teach courses at Coffeehouse For Writers. (Update: I now teach flash fiction and haibun courses through flashquake http://www.flashquake.org/online-classes/index.html )-- the next course begins this coming Monday, and then there will be others in 2003. (Update: the next courses I teach will be in early 2007. See flashquake page for updates.) I'm also working on a flash fiction type novel tentatively called Holler Stories, based on a particular location in Eastern Kentucky.
In addition, I'm busyworking on a book on how to write short-shorts with Geoff Fuller. So stay tuned for that. (Update: Geoff and I are now working on separate projects rather than on our book. I'm still plugging on that, though!)
JIH: Where can readers learn more about short-shorts?
PC: Geoff Fuller and I have an article in the current Writer's Digest Yearbook on writing effective twist endings for short-shorts. It's in the December 2002 issue of Guide To Writing Fiction Today and is at bookstores now. We also had an article on writing short-shorts in the October 2002 issue of Writer's Digest that might still be available to some of your readers.
PC: And in case some keep or have access to back issues, we've also had feature-length articles on flash fiction writing in earlier Writer's Digest issues-- in the February 2001 issue of Writer's Digest, in the Winter 2002 issue of Guide to Writing Fiction Today (Writer's Digest's Yearbook), and the January 2002 issue of Start Writing Now: Your Introduction to the Writing Life (also a Writer's Digest publication).
PC: Another great way to study a type of writing is by going to the sources themselves. Here are the titles of some excellent short-short anthologies that are readily available at or through major bookstores:
Flash Fiction: 72 Very Short Stories Edited by James Thomas
Micro Fiction: An Anthology of Really Short Stories Edited by Jerome Stern
Short Shorts: An Anthology of the Shortest Stories Edited by Irving Howe and Illana Weiner Howe
Sudden Fiction: American Short-Short Stories Edited by Robert Shapard and James Thomas
Sudden Fiction International: 60 Short-Short Stories Edited by James Thomas and Robert Shapard
Sudden Fiction Continued: 60 New Short-Short Stories Edited by Robert Shapard and James Thomas